The Columbine shootings continue to "inspire" Hollywood

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It's doubtful that even the most nuanced version of the killers' motives would satisfy all camps. Harris and Klebold offered contradictory explanations for their hatred and despair. They were filled with rage over perceived slights from family members and the "bitches" who rejected them, but they also believed they had "evolved one step above you fucking human shit." They offered ample warning signs of their intentions because they suspected, correctly, that almost no one was paying attention. They disparaged religion but clung to a hope that they would somehow be able to enjoy their dead-celebrity status. They pursued their apocalyptic plot for months, with the monomania of terrorists, even as their lives seemingly improved, yet they were adept at blaming others for their isolation and contempt for the whole world. "I hate you people for leaving me out of so many fun things," Harris wrote in the final, self-pitying entry in his journal. That's not an explanation — just another expression of long-nurtured grievances by an angry, deeply delusional teenager.

A few of Cullen's most vocal critics say they don't trust his book because he relies so heavily on sources among law enforcement and school officials, including Jefferson County lead investigator Kate Battan, FBI agent Dwayne Fuselier (whose psychological analysis of the killers Cullen presents as if handed down from Mount Sinai) and principal Frank DeAngelis — people whom Columbine families accused of misleading them or providing self-serving accounts. Although Cullen deals in a roundabout way with the police cover-up concerning prior investigations of the killers and their blunders on the day of the attack, he also describes the Jeffco commanders — several of whom lied outright to the media and the victims' families — as "essentially honest men," and he makes a point of proclaiming that Battan "was clean."

"He was working with Battan and Fuselier to make the police look good," says Brian Rohrbough, who fought in court for years to establish that the official account of how his son Danny died outside the school was wrong. "He glosses over the cover-up as if it's an incidental thing."

When Columbine was published, three years ago, Rohrbough and other parents were incensed to learn that Oprah Winfrey was going to feature the author, along with Battan and Fuselier, on a show marking the tenth anniversary of the shootings. Contacted by a producer for photos of his son, Rohrbough suggested that Winfrey was making a terrible mistake.

"I said, 'I'd be happy to pay for my own plane ticket and be part of this,'" he recalls. "'If you're going to put these liars on, someone needs to be there to refute them.' She was horrified."

An appearance on Oprah virtually guaranteed a dramatic rise in sales for any author. Winfrey decided to shelve the episode on Cullen's book, issuing a brief statement: "After reviewing it, I thought it focused too much on the killers. Today, hold a thought for the Columbine community. This is a hard day for them."

"Focused too much on the killers" is a frequent rap on Cullen's work. Jeff Kass, the author of Columbine: A True Story, another tenth-anniversary release that made less of a splash than Cullen's book, recently wrote an op-ed piece about the miniseries flap, suggesting that his competitor's psychological approach presents a distorted view of "two teens who wanted to kill almost everyone they met...and wanted to keep hurting people even after they died."

"Lifetime may have every right to make a Columbine miniseries," Kass writes. "But it also has an obligation to make it the right way."

But what's the right way? Cullen points out that his book also deals with the recovery process of survivors and victims' families, especially Patrick Ireland, the badly wounded youth who crawled out of the library window into the arms of rescuers, and the wife of Dave Sanders. His book was positively received by some of the Columbine families — as well as by thousands of people affected by other shootings and forms of trauma. He insists the producers he's working with are as committed as he is to honoring the victims and not glorifying the killers.

At the same time, he concedes that he doesn't have an easy response for people concerned about the trauma the miniseries might trigger. "Of all the anger and reasons for protest, that's the one that gnaws at me the most," he says. "That's the one I'm really worried about. You'd think I'd have a better answer for that by now. I don't know how to answer it without sounding like an asshole."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast